Billy Joe Shaver got my attention several years ago with a Clinton era song about “People and Their Problems.” There’s no song on his new album The Real Deal nearly so individually memorable, but it’s still pretty listenable.
I’m pretty predisposed to like Billy Joe Shaver as a crusty old country character, a pal to the likes of ol’ Willie Nelson and “governor-in-waiting” Kinky Friedman, who wrote the liner notes claiming that this album is “spellbinding” and “stunning.” Like Willie or Kinky, this guy’s real, as per the album title. He’s got some genuine force of personality, unlike most of these empty hats being passed off as country singers.
Still, not all these songs are that great. I appreciate Kinky’s boosterism for his buddy, but this is certainly somewhat less than stunning. There’s nothing particularly innovative or experimental in what he’s doing to make me want to hear this 117 times as the Kinkster claims. Some of them just are not very interesting songs. Still, even by somewhat critical standards, there are at least three or four pretty worthwhile songs.
Pick of the litter would be “Jesus Christ Is Still the King.” It’s a simple Protestant declaration of faith in the savior. It won’t make you forget “Me and Jesus,” but it would make a good companion to it on a Jesus CD mix.
Billie Joe is getting to be an old dude, and his voice is somewhat shaky and raspy. This mostly actually tends to work to the benefit of the songs, particularly this gospel song.
The other best song is the opening “Live Forever.” It has a strong life force behind it, and best of all a strong tune. This one is plain catchy. The arrangement is particularly compelling and dramatic, and a little bit different sound than anything I’ve heard. This is definitely the best performance of any of the songs. The opening guitar figure is quite good.
Lyrically, this might be seen as something of a counterexample to the typically straightforward approach that benefits most of the record so much. Still, the several different directions he goes in at once work pretty well. Partly, he seems to be taking comfort in the degree of immortality he figures to have achieved in song.
In a crazy alternate universe where country radio plays actual country music, this song is doubtless a huge hit single.
“There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool” is more of a simple genre exercise, but this sentimental slice has a decent hook and flows nicely. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Repeated listenings especially bring forth the worth of “It Just Ain’t There for Me No More.” This gets right at the strength of the basic direct approach of Hank Williams. It’s a pretty good song compositionally with a decent basic hook which benefits greatly from its plainspokeness.
It’s not much of a tune, but he has a pretty amusing sketch of some hardluck country singers, “Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys.” The description of proud Slim’s skanky gal is particularly amusing.
Likewise in the range of lyrics more interesting than the tune is the nominal album closer, nearly eight minutes of a hooker raising her son up right at “Aunt Jessie’s Chicken Ranch.” This song in particular has some nice, understated picking, dobro and various understated guitar textures. Follow the story closely to the Freudian conclusion.
The rest of these songs pretty much start to run together. They’re just not melodically distinctive enough to make much mark.
Even at that, though, these songs all sound like they were written by a human being with a soul, not to be mistaken for the pre-fab blandness of these Village People rejects passed off for “country music” at radio.
I’d much rather hear even the more middling songs here than the nonsense at current commercial country radio.